Comparing Schizophrenia with Drug-Induced Psychosis
Although illicit drugs affect the brain differently, they all affect it in some way, and taking too much of any one drug or combining certain substances can result in a psychotic reaction. Drugs that can cause psychosis include alcohol, amphetamines, hallucinogens, marijuana, cocaine, sedative-hypnotics, and opioids.
Psychosis, which essentially means the inability to differentiate between thoughts, perceptions, and reality, is also a symptom of some mental illnesses, like schizophrenia. This article will compare and contrast drug-induced psychosis with symptoms of schizophrenia and explore why both are inextricably linked in some individuals.
What Is It?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, schizophrenia is a chronic mental health disorder that is characterized by:
- Unusual or dysfunctional thoughts
- Physical agitation
- Difficulty focusing
- Reduced feelings of pleasure
- Difficulty comprehending information and making subsequent decisions
- Problems with working memory
Symptoms of schizophrenia typically arise between the ages of 16 and 30, but in rare cases, children may also exhibit symptoms of the disorder. There are a few risk factors that make some individuals more susceptible to the condition than others. These include genetic factors, environmental factors, and brain chemistry. The Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America reports that schizophrenia affects approximately 1.1 percent of the global population, and 3.5 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with it.
Drug-induced psychosis is characterized by hallucinations and delusions, which occur because of the effects the drugs have on the brain. The hallucinations are typically visual, and the delusions cause a shift in the individual’s consciousness that makes it hard to distinguish between what is real and what is not.
Some individuals take certain substances solely because of their hallucinogenic properties, while others experience hallucinations or delusions as a negative side effect of a drug they used for a different purpose. For example, psychedelics are a group of drugs within the hallucinogen category that people take in order to experience hallucinations. LSD, magic mushrooms, and mescaline are all examples of psychedelic drugs. Cocaine, on the other hand, can also induce hallucinations, but users rarely take it for that reason.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, roughly 1.2 million people over the age of 12 were current hallucinogen users in 2014.
How Long Do Symptoms Last?
Schizophrenia requires ongoing treatment, and for many individuals, the intensity of their symptoms will peak and subside throughout their entire lives. The four stages of schizophrenia are:
- Prodromal: In this stage, symptoms are easy to miss. Individuals will typically experience symptoms that are common to other mental illnesses, like depression and anxiety disorders. In addition, young adults going through puberty can experience many of these same symptoms, and the condition may go undiagnosed. This phase can last anywhere from a few days to a few years.
- Acute: During the acute, or active, phase of schizophrenia, individuals will experience hallucinations, delusions, and confusing thoughts. These symptoms are similar to those of drug-induced psychosis. The acute phase can develop gradually or suddenly and may require hospitalization if symptoms cause a severe psychotic episode. The acute phase usually lasts for 4-8 weeks.
- Remission: With treatment, symptoms can get better, and individuals enter the remission phase.
- Relapse: For people with schizophrenia, relapse is common. They start the cycle all over again, but symptoms may get less intense over time. Some individuals experience fewer relapses as they age until symptoms subside altogether, while others need consistent treatment and maintenance throughout their entire lives.
The duration of each drug-induced psychosis period varies among individuals, and the timeframe depends on a variety of factors. In most cases, the symptoms do not last for more than a few days, and for many people, the duration is much shorter than that. For example, the effects of magic mushrooms typically last 3-6 hours, while the side effects of LSD can last 6-14 hours.
Is There a Cure?
Though some individuals may eventually stop relapsing after entering the remission phase, schizophrenia is a lifelong disorder for most, and there is no documented cure. Antipsychotic medication is the primary treatment because it can help reduce symptoms while enabling individuals to function normally. Various types of therapy are also used to treat schizophrenia and to help those suffering from it learn how to cope with the worst of their symptoms.
There is no cure for drug-induced psychosis because it is not a disease in the traditional sense. Drug-induced psychosis subsides as the body metabolizes the substance that caused it in the first place; however, there are some drugs that can cause psychosis symptoms for days, months, and even years after an individual stops taking them. With heavy use, cocaine, amphetamines, and sometimes alcohol can cause psychosis symptoms that persist well into sobriety.
The Challenge of Co-occurring Disorders
According to a report originally published in JAMA Psychiatry, people who have severe mental health disorders like schizophrenia are more likely to develop a substance use disorder than those who do not. Diagnosing co-occurring disorders and devising effective treatment plans are challenging when both of the disorders present with the same symptoms.
The Australia Government’s National Drug Strategy suggests that healthcare professionals can distinguish between schizophrenia coupled with substance abuse and drug-induced psychosis alone by monitoring symptoms after an individual finishes the withdrawal stage. They can also look for the existence of prodromal symptoms of schizophrenia, including subtle personality changes, angry outbursts, odd thought patterns, and reclusiveness, prior to substance use.